Friday, 16 December 2011

The Goats of Christmas Yet to Come

Summer is here and the grass is rampant. As the local farmers reap the harvest, we're vainly waiting for the goat girls to keep the growth down in the paddocks. In some places they are only just visible above the waving seed heads which, as they cure, are proving to be a tasty morsel for a discerning goat. Combine this with veggie scraps and you have nearly everything a goat could ask for. We even bought the goats a mineral lick for Christmas. This was an immediate hit with the girls giving it the rough end of their tongues for all they were worth. However, like many Christmas presents that amuse for a short time and then are cast aside, the initial response to the lick has not been repeated and it now sits as another rmonument to our infatuatiion with those of the horned species. However, through weather or animal attentions, the lick is taking on rather distorted dimensions and may well pass for a piece of modern paddock scuplture in the future.

Hopefully the new year will open a new chapter in our goat relations as we are planning to breed the girls and build a family. This could be a complicated proceedure because at the moment we have no billy and will have to seek out the expertise of neighbours as to the courting rituals that need to be observed if one is to raise a successful herd of goats. In the meantime the girls are getting sleek and fat, ever more curious and adventurous. We are getting quite attached to our horned friends, though like children, they can be quite demanding and mischievious, especially when they know treats are available.
Toffee tests soundness of walls

Lyn has been spending much of her free time building the goat shelter and as its walls rise higher it is being subjected to stability tests and quality control as one girl after another gathers her limbs and takes a spring, landing atop the wall with four footed precision and then proceeding to strut its circumference, dislodging any loose stones as if to reject imperfect workmanship. Whilst one goat performs this disarmingly clever distraction, another quietly sidles up behind the wall builder and does her best to nuzzle her way into pockets that might be hiding a pellet or two.

We have also discovered the hidden aspects of animal husbandry in the small but persistent attentions that animals need. Though there is little we can do to save the girls from the attention of leeches which often manifest on bloody forelimbs or rumps, it seems that the safe life of living in a paddock has other ramifications for domesticated animals. Goats have very active keratin producers and thus grow toenails at an alarming rate. In the wild this poses no problems as they are constantly clambering on rocks and other hard surfaces that serve to wear down nails and keep them at servicable lengths. In a paddock however, the soft footing allows these nails to grow long and luxuriant. This would be all very well if you didn't have to walk on said nails which have a nasty tendancy to curl under the hoof and not only cause discomfort but make footing more difficult.
Sugar works on her own nails

Sugar was aflicted with a slight lameness and being the new fretting parents that we are this concerned us and led us to seek more experienced assistance. Thus we were introduced to the hoof peticure, a practice so the text books tell us, that should occur about twice a year. Unlike the pampered lunacy of the human beauty treatment, a goat peticure involves a cross between wrestling and sheet metalwork as a giant pair of shears is used to clip of lumps of tough offending toenail whilst someone holds the subject goat in a less than dignified position on its rump. Apparently, you can train your goats to stand for this treatment, much like a horse allowing itself to be subjected to shoeing, but our helpful expert suggested that we shouldn't encourage such vanities in the girls or they would forever be expecting to be pampered.
This advice taken, we have observed that, far from being jealous of the attention given to Sugar, the others were all very happy to forgo such an invasive procedure. Sugar herself is now a little shy about being suubjected to more than basic attentions.

And so the goats settle in; a curiosity for visitors and a conversation topic for we as small animal husbanders; and breeding season comes closer.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Spring Time on the goat run

There can be a down side to having overly friendly animals that crowd the gateway whenever you come to visit. If we want to get through the gates now-a-days, we have to make sure that we have food to distract the girls or they simply duck behind us and escape to the wider vista of the house gardens. This isn't so bad if you just have a body to squeeze through the gap but if you are pushing the barrow or riding the mower, the goats have the upper hand every time. There's no sneaking up on them either, the girls seem to have a sixth sense that informs them when there is some activity near a gate and manage to congregate in readiness for your arrival.

Polly seems to be the most alert at this practice and is usually the first to pop up her head and notice that a human being is approaching. First one head goes up and an inquisitive gaze is cast in the direction of disturbance, followed by three more heads accompanied by a plaintive bleat before some mutual signal sets all four goats in motion and they begin their bound across the field, ears flapping in unison with their stride, to reach the gate before the food arrives.

Polly premonitious
No longer do we put the surplus silver beet in the compost for the worms. Instead, spare garden greenery is taken to the girls as a treat for the day. In addition to a steady supply of silver beet that seems constantly to be going to seed, the odd cabbage, broccoli or even strawberry plant will get the goats all excited. The worry here is however that as the grass grows and the weeds rear their ugly heads, the goats are ignoring inviting thistles and searching for more savoury tid bits. Even attempts to hand feed thistle plants have been rebuffed. Have we reared a bunch of sissy goats rather than robust garbage disposal mechanisms.

On the other side of the coin, while the goats eat of the bounty of the land, they in turn are being preyed upon. What dangerous creature lurks in the paddocks waiting to attack the unwary and reduce it to an empty husk? It's not a snake (of which there have been several sightings so far this year) but a creature of humble proportions and yet devestating impact. The activity of this creature is often evident when we find the goats red with their own blood; dramtically contrasted on Polly and Sugar's white hair. This assault is obviously perpetrated most often at night, only manifesting in the light of day and making it look like the girls have been involved in some brawl with a broken bottle. The culprit is nothing more significant than the humble leech but here acting in a feral rather than medicinal capacity and taking their fill regularly from our coddled livestock.

Neither Lyn nor I have escaped unscathed as the leeches seem to be invading the gardens as well as the paddocks and damp patches on trousers are not necessarily just the result of wading through the long grass but may be patches of blood, soaking into clothing from weeping wounds left after the leech has gone. We may need to start wearing red socks to hide the evidence and certainly give up wearing sheer tights as the welts of leech activity remain for days afterward. It's no wonder gumboots are so popular on farms.

Friday, 21 October 2011

In which the goats stay put and we build a shelter

It only took four months and a considerable amount of time and effort but finally, the goat girls seemed content to stay put. Their roaming days were over and they were prepared to settle down and perform the duties for which they were procured. It was also encumbent upon us, now that they were full time tenants, to look out for them rather than look for them. To this end, Lyn decided that they needed shelter. Not just any type of shelter but one worthy of the status of 'first goats' and a fit place to nurture the expected progeny of the future.

Our goat shelter was to be built in the time honoured tradition of animal shelters of the past. An organic statement about the marriage of the natural world and the order of domesticity. It might be the modern medium of electricity that was keeping the goats in but it would be the natural element of stone that would protect them from the elements. Using her skills as a rock wall artisan, Lyn began the labour of dismantling piles of rocks that had been put to one side during previous ploughings of the paddocks and reasembling same into an edifice that will one day delight archeaologists as they uncover the secrets of the Mole Creek Hill Top Goat Keepers.
The girls practice sheltering in the shelter circle
Playing in the paddocks in winter time is not for the faint hearted. With snow on the Tiers, cold winds and the damp of earth and grass, the elements line up to make the job hard enough but add to that the back straining work of sorting rocks and moving many that weigh more than your average ten year old from world's biggest loser and you get some idea of the effort involved. The girls however, were intrigued by the activities and showed an eagerness to participate by climbing onto and into the barrow, inspecting the selected rocks and constantly looking for a treat. As soon as the circle trench for the foundations was complete, they took up residence, using it at least as a day time solarium where they relaxed in the sun between ruminations.

One by product of goat activities (in fact of all activities in life) is the left overs that come from eating away the rampant growth of the paddocks. Little piles of goaty poo began to accumulate in the girl's favourite places, a rich source of nutriment that we coveted for garden use and as we emptied bags of pellets to feed the goats, we began to refill them with little poos. It would be nice to be able to vacuum the grass but as this isn't possible, we resorted to dustpan and brush. So far the pile of 'goat gold' is very small but expectations are strong as spring approaches and the green grass gets going.
Toffee finds the cupboard is bare
Scrounging for rocks through the long grass and then transporting them to the building site proved to be quite time consuming especially if using the manual method of loading them onto the trolley and pulling them over the uneven ground. To make this easier, we employed the assistance of our ride on mower. It proved well up to the task, able to pull over 100 kilos of rock with ease. Unfortunately, having a mower in a paddock of long grass was too much of a temptation and as we trundled back and forth to find and deliver rocks, we dropped the deck and created our own version of crop circles. The hazards of this activity were brought home on several occasions (we're slow learners) when an unseen rock lept out and attacked the mower, giving it such a fright that it threw its drive belt in protest. This meant a return to the workshop and much activity with the spanners as pulleys were released and the belt realigned. Is this like being a real farmer, spending the time between working and feeding the stock and maintaining the plant and equipment?

A routine began to develop as Haydn went off to work and Lyn entertained the goats. On the occasions when we were both away from home all day, our return was frequently celebrated (even before the obligatory cup of tea) by a visit to the goat girls, to dole out a treat and see which would tolerate a pat or scratch in return for food. The girls also began to anticipate our visits and would line up at the fence upon seeing us and begin to entertain us with the little goings on in their own world (at least I think that is what they were trying to communicate with their expressive bleats).

The goat presence also began to be felt by the foliage of the small trees that had managed to gain a footing in the paddocks despite the deprivations of the wallabies. Anything within reach was a target for the carnal appetites of the girls as they sought roughage to supplement their diet of winter grasses. Little blackwoods lost their lower limbs and shivered skeletally in the cold while the goats grew rounder and more adventurous in their appetite. We also feed them supplements from the vegie garden: carrot tops, cabages gone to seed and parsley for a bit of variety and, while these were received with enthisiasm, Molly in paricular showed no interest in greens if there were pellets to be had and to that end would stand on her hind legs to get her head into the bucket. Ah, how such things amuse us all. Now we no longer had to rely on our childrens's activities to oil the social exchange, but were able to plumb the growing pool of goat anecdotes to win rural recognition.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Birthday Present

Life had settled into some sort of routine. Today we are goat herders, then the next we're not. The neighbours were very tolerant of our unauthorised agistment on their land (albeit in a paddock which the previous summer had been nothing but slender thistle) and must have smiled with amusement as we trudged over the same ground on one of our seemingly pointless round ups. The only saving grace in all this was the convenient fact that there was a gate on the boundary fence that made it relatively easy to move the goats from the wrong side to the right side of the fence. How we could have accomplished this otherwise was a problem that showed itself all too clearly when Toffee again made her escape.

We had done all the work. The western fence; the weakness in our defences, was now 30 cm higher with a electric wire on top. We felt optimistic that this might finally solve the problem that was taking most of our spare time to rectify. Having commissioned the wire and determined that it was live, we once again corralled the goats. Having some premonition perhaps of their final experience of freedom, they proved a little reluctant but by now they were attune to the sound of pellets rattling in the bucket and allowed themselves to be seduced by the lure of food, to give up their independence for the satiation of their appetites for exotic treats.
Toffee: First in sequence and audacity
There wasn't much more that we could do in the line of fencing so our main focus became that of making friends with the wayward girls in the grass. It was a Friday, Lyn went out for the evening so I decided to walk the perimeter, getting a bit of exercise and saying hello to the girls. I took a few treats as we had figured that this was the best way to bribe our lodgers into coming to us rather than running in the other direction. As expected, everyone was congregated in the remotest and least visible corner of the paddock. As I headed this way in the gathering dusk, the plaintive cry of a goat in distress was very evident and, sure enough, there was our Toffee, on the wrong side of the fence. Her bleating may have been a criticism of her mates who, when confronted by our new barrier had (for the moment at least) accepted that they were beaten and therefore were contentedly tearing the foliage off the prickly box and generally showing a complacent acceptance of their lot.

A little detective work showed that Toffee had used the same route to freedom that had served her well on many other occasions. She hadn't managed to leap higher but had squeezed between two strands of barb wire (leaving enough hair on both to allow even the least competent forensic investigation to determine her path to freedom). Her strident bleats and futile pacing on the other side of the fence went ignored by her colleagues and, to rub salt into the wound, I proceeded to reward the compliant goats with their now favoured treats.

Toffee was not a happy goat but there was little I could do to allow her to return to the fold with the fence now an effective barrier in both directions. I figured a night alone in the wilds might serve as a lesson and thus returned to the warmth of the house and left the goats to sort out their priorities.
Sugar & Polly stand sentinel
Morning came and with it, an opportunity to see if Toffee had learnt her lesson and was ready to come home and be a part of the flock and not a maverick, destined to forever roam on the wrong side of the law, enjoying her freedom but missing out on the companionship and rewards of being part of something greater than herself. The girls were much as I had left them the previous morning, Toffee was pacing the fence while her sisters quietly browsed the foliage and only occasionally showed awareness or concern for her plight. We spent a good hour trying to coax her along the path that she had obviously trodden many times before to get to the neighbour's paddock and thence through the gate to home but she was not in the mood to see that a temporary move away from her goal would achieve the outcome that by now both she and we, sought.

Polly the runt

We abandoned our efforts, once again rewarding the good girls and leaving the naughty Toffee to her own devices. The kids (our biological children) had come up for the week end to celebrate my birthday and we headed off to Launceston to have lunch at Joseph Chromy. Of course our way would ladies were a major topic of conversation as we caught up on Jessica's job search and Zoe's legal studies. Michael's inside knowledge of the machinations of government and Oliver's latest achievements in building the robots of the future were engrossing but it was the goats that took centre stage. Oh what a sad and empty existance we lead!!

Molly moulting

Lunch over, we headed home to continue our reunion in more leisurely fashion. As we drove up the hill to the house we looked into the paddock as was becoming our custom and were excited to see, not only the three 'good goats' but Toffee, on each side of the fence, right next to the boundary gate. With all haste, we marshalled Jess and Oli, grabbed a tin full of treats and headed into the paddock, hoping to persuade Toffee to come home. Toffee needed little encouragement. The twin enticements of food and the opportunity to rejoin her sisters, meant that she was more than willing to allow herself to be ushered through the gate and back into the home field. Our goats were once again united!!!!

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Spit Roast?

By now we were beginning to despair. Perhaps we, like many would be parents, were not destined to be livestock breeders and this was just nature's way of telling us that we had not passed the natural selection criteria that leads to a life of animal husbandry. It had become a common sight as I lay abed in the morning, watching the sun begin to bathe the north facing slopes of the hill next door, to see the goat girls emerge through the braken on their daily forage through the pastures. Their presence taunted us with our shortcomings as they opted for the surrogacy of the neighbours farm over the virgin paddocks of our own. Perhaps they inately knew that we lacked knowledge and experience (demonstrated no doubt by the shiny wire and steel posts of our new fencing compared with the comfortable rust and listing wooden posts next door) and felt more secure in an area that obviously had seen the hoof print of livestock in recent times.

Up till now we had been fairly confident that we could execute a round up when the opportunity presented itself but the goats began to get wily and on several occasions evaded our overtures of benign incarceration and showed a swift turn of speed as they bolted for their gap under the fence that led to the wild lands of the bush and a place were no sane person would attempt to follow. We were at a standoff. We'd sometimes manage to coax the goats in and on such occasions they would happily take food from us, getting ever bolder in their quest for a tasty treat but other times they would evade capture only to reappear on the wrong side of the fence and quietly undermine our confidence in the doctrine of human superiority. When we did get them within the paddocks, it was never for very long and, when it came time to check on the boundries, they would demonstrate a complete lack of goat contained therein.

These were becoming expensive goats. Already the cost was in the 4 figure department with electric fencing and other gizmos, goat treats and the goats themselves. We were seeing no return on our investment in the way of shorter grass, little piles of goatie poo to fertilize the garden or the companionship of domesticated animals. We couldn't just let this continue. Perhaps we would be better off with sheep after all, something that couldn't leap moderate height fences in a single bound, some animal that wasn't smart enough to recognise our ineptitude. With these dispairing thoughts I put in a call to our local goat guru (and supplier of goats) with the thought that perhaps the goats were ripe enough to become freezer material and thus recoup some of our expenditure via the dinner table.maybe there was time for one last round up.

But no!! there may yet be a solution. One that Lyn had insisted was the obvious option from the beginning and that was to raise the height of the fence. When this was first mooted some weeks previously I had had no experience of the fun things you can do with fencing by the purchase and application of proprietary devices. It now seemed possible and even practical to  use electric wire standoffs to put another wire above the tops of the pickets. With fresh determination, vigour and enthusiasm we set about implementing this new plan.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Leadership in Question

With the electric fence partly commissioned and the goats seemingly following an established pattern of roaming from adjacent bushland to the neighbour's paddock as a daily routine, we began a subtle game of wits. When we were both at home and the goats made their appearance next door, we would climb the fences and round them up, retuning them to their home range. For the moment this was largely an academic exercise as, no sooner than we had them home and congratulated ourselves on finally being goat keepers, than they would make their escape when our vigilance dropped.

We persisted in this game despite its seeming futility and in the face of the increased cunning of the girls who began to understand our desire to restrict their freedom and, if given the chance, would elude our herding efforts by making a bolt for the scrub where we had no chance of following. Each time we had them home, it seemed that their stay was briefer but we were managing to get them to take some food. This was as a small reward (probably more for us than them) for being on the correct side of the fence. It was on one such occasion that we were treated to a demonstration of escape techniques and were firmly able to establish the ringleader.

Toffee had always been the leader in new activity, whether it be getting her head stuck in the fence or taking food from our hands, she had a boldness the others lacked. On the afternoon in question both Lyn and I were working in the paddock (reinforcing the electric barrier) and the girls were inquisitively keeping us company. Like children whose attention span is limited without fresh stimuli, they would wonder away when bored but seemed ready to return when something piqued their interest. Toffee's attention threshold was quite fine and it was not long before she manifested her dissatisfaction in our entertainment and appeared on the wrong side of the fence. It didn't take much effort to get her back however, when she saw the other three indulging in treats that she had no access to.

Things were looking up. We were beginning to feel optimistic that we had broken the escapism cycle and the girls were learning to be content with their lot. Perhaps their dreams of starting a feral colony along the wilds of the Mersey River were being super imposed with the utopian ideal of food on demand and the easy life with a bit of human companionship thrown in. Toffee made another bid for freedom that afternoon. This time exiting over the western boundary. Fully expecting her companions to follow suit, she called upon them to break the yolk of their human oppressors, to forgo the soft life that meant forsaking their ideals and embrace the freedom of the wilds. This time her message fell on deaf ears and the other girls contentedly maintained their curious vigil of our activities. Toffee's cries became more strident as she recognised the spell that her friends were falling under but her rhetoric wasn't working. After an hour or more she obviously decided that a more consultative approach was called for and, it seemed to us, magically reappeared on the correct side of the fence.

This was a step in the right direction. Solidarity of the masses beat charismatic leadership and the mob mentality seemed to be calling the shots. We were quietly confident that sense would overcome the siren call of the wild and our girls would now settle down to a domestic routine and be available to amuse ourselves and our cottage guests, not to mention giving us credos as real rural types. The reality by now was a fairly predictable disappointment when we went out to check the attendance roll the following morning. The score was now; Goats 10 + /Us 0.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Electrifying Events

It may seem extrordinary but it is amazing what lengths one will go to to protect something they don't have anymore. Call it the ultimate spirit of optimism or perhaps a refusal to accept the obvious but it is hard to admit to failure. Or is it just that one feels foolish being out witted by a goat.

With wanted posters publicly advertising our failure and the goats still at large we set about securing the paddocks against their anticipated return. The first step in this plan was to purchase the materials for an electric fence. Sounds easy. Buy the bits, instal in a day and be ready for news of the fugitives.

Buying an electric fence proved to be more of a challenge than anticipated. First problem was dealing with choice. Should we go solar or mains powered? How much power do you need to zap sense into a goat who sees the other side of the fence as a challenge in much the same way that a mountain climber views the summit of Mt Everest.? How many insulators does it take to carry a wire across the undulations of our irregular fields? Having made some decisions on what to use and how to go about it, the next problem was actually getting the components. It seems that our local rural supply only kept enough stock to tantalise the prospective buyer and then keep them returning for the next three weeks as they eke out a few more at a time. As it was, our estimate of requirements was woefully inadequate and salesmen rubbed their hands with glee whenever they saw us returning for more.

We also discovered one of the fascinating things about rural supply. Nothing has a price tag and though there is obviously a secret threshold that cannot be crossed, what you pay one day will not necessarily be what you pay the next. Despite these small set backs we did come away armed with a box of goodies and a resolute purpose. We would fortify our borders and create a secure habitat from which no goat would want to or be able to stray. The whole thing was a bit like a border protection policy but completely inside out. Our asylum seekers weren't seeking asylum and our borders were not designed to keep out the undesirable but to contain a population that obviously didn't know what was best for them.

The one day installation timetable stretched to several weeks before we had the pulse of power throbbing through our carefully constructed goat barrier. In the meantime, the goats had been sighted, rounded up and herded back home. This latter event was a great relief to one who had begun to lose faith in the superiority of human ingenuity over the manifestly inferior primal instinct of the goat. Our happiness was of almost biblical proportions, akin to the shepherd who finds his lost sheep or even the celebrations that followed the return of the prodigal son. We didn't dwell on the prodigal son analogy for too long as the requirement of killing the fatted calf was an ironic counterpoint to our reason for keeping the goats in the first place.

We spread the news; 'the goats are back!' Down came the wanted posters and we once again set about trying to temp our way would friends with little treats to show that they were wanted and appreciated. The treats weren't overly successful and it was only a matter of days before Toffee was looking for a way out and getting her head stuck in the fence in the process. In hind sight we should have left her there as, no sooner than she was free, she led another, more successful escape attempt. We came home that afternoon to find that we were once again goat less and the score was very much in favour of the escapees.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Now you see them ...

Obviously it was Jessica's fault. Without an identity the goats were content within the confines of their new world but now they had names, they felt compelled to express their individuality. Toffee started by getting her head stuck in the fence, finding that backswept horns are fine when going forwards but less co operative when going in reverse. Thus she discovered that fences were not intended to allow her through; but no one had said anything about going over.

Two days after the wedding the goats were gone. If they had been intended as part of a dowry we could have fobbed it off as no longer our responsibility but they represented our hope toward self sufficiency and a lifestyle of eating that which we had reared (had some one told the goats?).  Thus we once again had an empty paddock and endured the platitudes of friends who attempted to offer us solace with stories of goats performing all kinds of escapism feats.

Having been goatherds for such a short time we were dismayed and bereft. Such long and careful planning (not to mention the cost of the goats themselves) had borne so little fruit . We walked the empty paddocks trying to find clues to the 'how?' and left the 'why?' untouched as a raw nerve on the surface of our sensibilities. The obvious bolt hole proved not to be a hole but a handy 'step-up' in the form of tree stumps conveniently spaced on either side of the fence. This was a job for the chainsaw. Thus armed we proceeded to try and close the escape route (despite the fact that the escapees were on the other side). If it had been a gate and a horse, the proverb could not have a better application.

Notices in the local shops did not achieve the desired result of news about our goats. We hadn't had a chance to take photographs and so we couldn't even include their mugshots. Ideas of being responsible for the genesis of a mob of feral goats rampaging through the adjacent bushland had me experiencing pangs of guilt and visions of prosecution by Parks and Wildlife and searches of our neighbouring forests yielded no sign of the wayward animals. Perhaps they had been abducted by aliens and were even now the focus of arcane experiments or, even worse, could they have been spirited away by a coven of witches to be used in unspeakable rites at the next full moon? Whatever the cause, whatever the case, the goats remained lost to us and at large pursuing their own goaty agenda and quite probably sniggering to themselves about their own cleverness in outwitting ourselves and the waratah wire company.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Engadine becomes home to The Goat Girls

From their first arrival in March, two weeks before our daughter's wedding, our first venture into livestock husbandry was fraught with unknown consequences. Four boar nanny goats were purchased in an effort to keep down rampant grass growth and hopefully to help control the odd thistle and briar attack. 
We'd prepared well. New feral proof fencing now surrounded the paddocks and posed a barrier not only to the wallabies that were trying to get in but also to livestock that might want to get out. What better home for a few impressionable young ladies? Initial reactions were mixed. The goats were unsure and skittish, disappearing to the far corner of the paddock to take solace beneath the prickly box and refused to be tempted by offerings of tid bits but aside from all this, they seemed intrigued and stimulated by their new environment.
With ear tags representing a mathematical progression almost worthy of a Dan Brown novel, the goat girls were identified as 2, 4, 6 & 8. Such impersonal reference was offensive to our daughter who believed that, as her parents had entered a new phase of their life (one in which our children had been substituted for goats), they should embrace it wholeheartedly and give the surrogoats (sic) names. So 2, 4, 6 & 8 became Molly, Toffee, Sugar and Polly aka, the goat girls.